Literacy - What's in a name? Confident readers

11th October 2013 at 01:00
`Coaching' gets better results than remedial education

Rebranding "remedial" education with the politically correct term "coaching" has played a beneficial role in improving children's literacy skills, a leading academic has suggested.

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, said that coaching did not carry the stigma of remedial education, even though it was a "repackaging" of a similar idea, because the term suggested that anyone could benefit from it.

Professor Topping spoke as he unveiled his major new report for the Scottish government, which examines research on literacy teaching in the preschool and early primary years.

The report, shared exclusively with TESS, is the driving force behind a trial project for an assessment system that aims to bridge the gap between literacy approaches in preschool and P1, and get staff in both "talking the same language". An evaluation will be published in the coming weeks.

"Some 40 years ago, there was considerable literature in the UK finding that `remedial' groups were not effective, which led to the disbandment of many of them," the report says. "It is interesting to see a somewhat similar idea now resurfacing under a different name."

"It doesn't have quite the same negative connotation, although it's much the same thing," Professor Topping said. "(The term coaching) does have an effect, I'm sure.

"Whatever word a teacher uses can be abused. But `coaching' is a milder term, which is more difficult to pervert."

Changes to teaching techniques over the past 40 years have also played a role in improving results from this kind of tutoring, Professor Topping said. Coaching tended to involve shorter, less frequent, more intense bursts of work in smaller groups, which might explain why research found it to be more successful, he added.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of nursery and primary school leaders' union AHDS, said: "If something has a name that has a negative connotation, then people are not going to be keen to be involved in it. But if the process is the same, the difference in outcomes would be fairly marginal."

Professor Topping looked at 42 years of work from 10 countries for the review, which also examines studies on parental involvement in literacy education. Almost all the research was optimistic about the effects of parents helping at home.

In contrast, in-service training for teachers did not often have a positive impact on literacy. The fault did not necessarily lie with the quality of training, Professor Topping said, and may have been down to demands on teachers.

But the report finds that classroom assistants foster "encouraging growth in reading skills" - improvements that for many children appear to last - and show signs of refining their skills and responding well to training.

Classroom assistant posts have become vulnerable amid shrinking budgets, but Professor Topping said that if cuts were based on evidence of what works, their jobs would be safer.

The report also highlights evidence supporting computer-based testing for children under the age of 6. Instruction using computers also came out well.

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